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  • Yennie Cheung

Short Story Month, Day 9: Celeste Ng

Updated: May 22, 2018


"How to Be Chinese" by Celeste Ng

I've known of Celeste Ng for a few years, but I didn't get a chance to check out her work until recently because nobody told me that when you sign a contract to write your first book, reading other people's work becomes next to impossible. Earlier this year, reveling in the ability to read for myself again, I drove through Texas listening to Everything I Never Told You, and if it weren't for the need to read Little Fires Everywhere, too, I'd be picking up a hard copy of that first book and diving into the story again.


Aside from being enraptured by the story, I was admittedly also relieved. I'm frequently underwhelmed with the writing of Chinese and Chinese American authors whom the general public fawns over because sometimes, honestly, what the public often loves are incorrect depictions of culture that speak to their preconceived notions and tropes that would be nipped in the bud in undergraduate writing workshops had there been a second Chinese American in the class to say, "You know proverbs are just Chinese clichés, right?" and "Fuck you and your 'make it more Chinese' BS." (I have never done this in workshop, but I have done this as a critic with, I think, less swearing.)

But Celeste Ng is a fantastic writer. She's so good that as I wrote this entry, I placed a library hold for the Chinese translation of Everything I Never Told You for my mom without telling her because she is reading this. (I also just realized that I missed an opportunity to get a Chinese copy of Little Fires Everywhere from Hong Kong, via a family member who recently came to visit. Blast!) Everything Celeste writes in "How to Be Chinese" is spot on, down to the names of every character, down to the code switching not just between languages but between what seems familiar and what seems strange. I initially had a tiny quibble with this story because McDonald's is pretty popular in Hong Kong (the first time I'd ever heard of a McCafe was in HK, actually), so Winston would be familiar with the menu, but as I've thought about it I've come to consider Winston's first line pretty sly. To Mackenzie, his question suggests that he's different. To me, it's a pick-up line, and seeing it that way changes my perspective of Winston's character.

One thing I like about Celeste's writing in both the novel and this story is that she takes on perspectives that defy the idea of Chinese Americans as exotic creatures. Her characters are painfully American in a country that sees them as Chinese—as outsiders—and I can relate. "How to Be Chinese" makes me think of all the Asian-born kids I've known who've been adopted by white folks in America. While I straddle two different cultures and feel sometimes that I'm not always welcome in either, I can at least say with confidence that I am part of both. But these kids who are firmly rooted in American culture don't necessarily have that, and sometimes people with strong roots in China can be hard on American kids who don't speak the language (we see this in Hispanic culture, too) or eat the authentic stuff or know how to shift between cultures. It's so easy to feel displaced in America, and that's why minority cultures tend to flock together: Nobody wants to feel alone. But sometimes, we are so desperate to find that common thread that we forget that there's no one way to be Chinese American and no one way to be American. I'm not an adopted child like Mackenzie, but I identify with her. I feel like I know her. I get her, which is to say that Celeste Ng gets me.

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